facts

Truth is the first casualty of war, it's often said, and history is written by the winners.

Collectively, the twin clichés are an excellent summation of the reasons why we can have so little confidence in our understanding of even the most basic facts of our world.

My daughter, a nascent eight-year old history buff, told me the story of the Battle of Bosworth Field just a few days ago as we walked to the shops one Sunday morning. As every English schoolchild learns, the famous 527-year-old skirmish ended with Henry Tudor's triumphant toppling of King Richard III from both his horse and his House of York rule, the discovery of his crown under a hawthorn bush, and the birth of the Tudor dynasty atop Crown Hill.

The journalist in me, to my shame, peppered my eight-year-old with questions as to why Henry could fool so many of Richard's troops simply by wearing the discarded crown, why such a valued object could be so carelessly lost during a crucial battle,and how a legless Percival Thirwell was still able to fly the Yorkist flag as he was hacked to bits by burly Tudor swordsmen.

My daughter, to her credit, held firm to the salient details of the story as she knew it, dismissing my attempts at challenging the accepted narrative with the unassailable defence of "Daddy, that's what happened!"

Disinformation, opinion, bias and assumption

The Bosworth Field story survives well into its sixth century largely because of the twin truisms mentioned above: the authors of its history were the Tudor victors and the truth very likely died alongside the 1,100 soldiers that perished on that late August day.

Five hundred-plus years can dim the memory, but there's little excuse for not challenging the accepted conventional wisdom of events that happened just a few months ago.

Nevertheless, any news round-up you're likely to peruse between now and the end of the year is guaranteed to be stuffed with as many nuggets of disinformation, opinion, bias and assumption as any well-researched Bosworth Field thesis.

Consider Libor, the City scandal-du-jour which has ensnared two European banks - UBS and Barclays - sunk several high-profile careers and resulted in billions of dollars in fines and penalties.

To read any mainstream take on the attempted manipulation of a heretofore esoteric corner of the financial markets would suggest conspiracy and malfeasance the likes of which would make Idi Amin blush.

The FSA, Britain's financial market watchdog, says it found at least 1,900 "internal requests, external requests and broker requests" at UBS that related to fixing the benchmark over a five-year period.

Barclays, it said, sent "more than 200" emails over four years attempting to do pretty much the same thing.

What the FSA didn't mention, and what most media outlets either didn't know or didn't bother to find out, is that over that five-year period, around 3.5 million - yes, million - Libor submissions would have been processed by the British Bankers' Association across 15 time periods and 10 currencies.

Crime of the Century?

In other words, UBS traders talked (indelicately and stupidly) about budging 0.05 percent of Libor submissions. Barclays hit rate was a robust 0.007 percent.

Submissions, mind you, not actually the Libor rate itself (in which the BBA takes 18 submissions, tosses out the top and bottom four and calculates the average).

Given the tiny portion of total submissions affected - and the even smaller chance of the manipulated submission working its way into the calculated average - some might suggest calling this the "Crime of the Century" is more than a tad hyperbolic.

I'm not mitigating the seriousness of the "attempt" to fudge Libor, but at the same time I've never held the privately auctioned benchmark in terribly high regard in the first place. Authorities have had the better part of a decade to repair it, but decided instead to act as negligently as the banks that were left in charge to monitor it.

Now that it's blown up in everyone's face, guess who's getting the blame?

Which takes me to a topic that's infinitely more serious than any attempt to shave a basis point or two from deep within the bowels of the banking system: the hideous tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the murder of 20 children and their six teachers and carers.

In 1984, a deranged southern California man collected his illegally purchased semi-automatic weapons, told his wife he was going out to "hunt humans" and proceeded to methodically slaughter 21 people - including an eight-month-old baby and 10 teenagers - while eating lunch on a sunny July day at a San Diego fast food restaurant.

US lawmakers have had, then, the better part of three decades to craft workable legislation that might have prevented the 61 mass shootings that followed the San Ysidro massacre.

They didn't.

That, of course, hasn't stopped the media from blaming the NRA (despite the fact its largest donation this year to any member of Congress was only $10,000) and linking gun ownership directly to the high rate of murder in the United States (despite the fact that several countries, including Brazil, have far fewer guns yet significantly more firearm homicides and other countries, like Switzerland, have more guns and barely any homicides).

There are 350 million people in the United States and a conservatively estimated 300 million guns.

Short of a house-to-house search and seizure of weapons and a wholesale change in wording of that nation's second founding principle, stricter guns laws wouldn't have prevented the murder of the children in Newtown, Connecticut or many if not most of the 62 mass shootings over the past 30 years, for that matter, given the fact that 75 percent of the weapons used were legally obtained and more Americans died last year from the misuse of painkillers than by firearms.

Simplify and exaggerate

Even the focus on eradicating semi-automatic weapons ignores that fact that a suicidal former US Marine took a bolt-action rifle on to the campus of the University of Texas in 1966, and murdered 14 people and wounded 32 more before he was taken down by an Austin police officer.

In effect, what we've seen is that in each of the year's two biggest news events - in human and business terms - the media's attempt to "simplify and exaggerate" the first draft of history has led to fundamental misinformation hardening like cement in the public consciousness. In each case complexity and context has been omitted in favour of conjecture and conspiracy.

And we're all poorer for it.

Instead of examining more closely the link between homicide and drugs and inequality, or mass shootings and unchecked mental instability, we seek "solutions" that are easy to articulate, understand and advocate.

Those who disagree are dismissed "gun nuts".

Instead of examining more closely the role banks played - and continue to play - in the greatest economic advance the world has even seen, we demonise the millions of honest lenders over the sleazy actions of a tarnished few.

Those who disagree are dismissed as "banksters".

If we don't challenge these narratives today, we'll be left with many more questions tomorrow because increasingly it seems as if history isn't being written by the winners but rather by the lazy.